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Blinken intensifies diplomacy as Israel readies expected assault on Gaza

Updated October 15, 2023 - 11:14 am

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Saturday for protecting civilians in the Gaza Strip and Israel as he intensified his diplomatic outreach across the Middle East and beyond to rally an international response to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from expanding.

His efforts reflect international concern about the number of civilians at risk and the potential ramifications of a prolonged war as Israel told Gaza residents to evacuate south and Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, urged people to remain in their homes.

Israel is expected to launch a massive ground invasion in Gaza in retaliation for this month’s surprise attack by the ruling Hamas that killed at least 1,300 Israelis and kidnapped about 150 people who are now hostages.

Blinken met with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh before stopping in the United Arab Emirates. Blinken also called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to seek his country’s help in preventing the war from spreading, asking Beijing to use whatever influence it has in the Mideast. Blinken’s spokesman declined to characterize Wang’s response but said the U.S. believes it and China have a shared interest in the region’s stability.

In Riyadh, Blinken and Prince Faisal stressed the importance of minimizing the harm to civilians as Israel prepared for an anticipated incursion against Hamas a week after the terrorist group’s unprecedented attack against Israel.

“As Israel pursues its legitimate right, to defending its people and to trying to ensure that this never happens again, it is vitally important that all of us look out for civilians, and we’re working together to do exactly that,” Blinken said.

The Saudi minister said the kingdom was committed to the protection of civilians.

“It’s a disturbing situation,” he said. “It’s a very difficult situation.”

A U.S official said Saturday that Washington did not ask Israel to slow or hold off on the evacuation plan. The official said the discussions with Israeli leaders did stress the importance of taking into account the safety of civilians as Israel’s military moved to enforce the evacuation demand.

The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israeli leaders acknowledged the guidance and took it under advisement.

The U.S. worked out an agreement to allow Americans and other foreigners in Gaza to cross the Rafah border into Egypt, but the crossing remained blocked Saturday, with no sign that those gathered would be allowed through. There are an estimated 500 Americans living in Gaza, but that number is imprecise, officials have said.

The U.S. State Department on Saturday authorized the departure of nonemergency U.S. government personnel and their family members from the American Embassy in Jerusalem and an office in Tel Aviv.

Blinken planned to return to Saudi Arabia and then stop in Egypt on Sunday. He has already visited Israel, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain.

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Baldor reported from aboard a U.S. military aircraft. Associated Press writers Tara Copp, Colleen Long and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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